This is a blog about my travels. My "regular" life is much too boring to bother blogging about.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Panic in Detroit

Now that my parents are in Toronto, I have been quite the dutiful son and have visited them fairly frequently. This is both good and bad. Good: well, my parents are awesome, and so is Toronto. Bad: my trips to Toronto are heavy on family time, and very, very short of exploring time; and going to Toronto takes time and money, both of which are limited, and both of which I could be spending on expeditions elsewhere. So how does a wannabe twentysomething nomad make excuses to travel?

For one, sports. I have done a terrible job capitalizing on this so far, just terrible. How many times have I resolved to structure a Hamilton visit around a Bulldogs or Ticats game? Probably fifty times, no joke, and I still have never been. Perhaps these kinds of excursions are best done spontaneously, which is how this Detroit business came about. I am a fairly big boxing fan - please don't ask me to justify why I am passionate such a clearly barbaric sport, because I can't - and one day when I was looking through schedules, I noticed that a pretty big fight between two chaps named Andre Dirrell and Arthur Abraham had been postponed, with the venue switching to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. DETROIT. Clearly a trip was in order, and it came together in literally a day (this is about two weeks ago). My travel partner was my buddy Mac, UWO's resident boxing fanatic (he's writing his thesis about it) and the dude that I watch most boxing PPVs with.

I have been obsessed with Detroit for a long time. For some odd reason, Yellowknife used to get CBS, ABC and NBC affiliates from Detroit, so I grew up watching Detroit local news and watching Detroit sports (I know more about Detroit high school basketball in the 1990s than a person from Yellowknife ought to). I feel like I know the city on a certain level, even though I had never been there. And more importantly: I'm really interested in postindustrial cities (rust belt, if you prefer), and Detroit is the mother of all postindustrial cities. Enough hacky articles have been written about the decline and current plight of Detroit, so I will save you the cliches. Clearly, the city is struggling, and this cannot and should not be sugar coated. But tales of Detroit's demise always seem to forget that actual people continue to live there, and that these people have a multiplicity of stories to tell.* So yeah, I was just a little curious about Detroit. How it took me almost three years to venture down there is beyond me.

(*It really bothers me when people talk about Detroit using death motifs. Detroit is NOT, I repeat, NOT a dead city. Dead cities, for example, do not produce the kind of music as is currently being produced in Detroit. IMO, Detroit is the best hip hop city in the USA, and the best techno city in the world. And I'm talking about right now. Detroit might be in the mother of economic slumps, but its inhabitants remain relentlessly creative. Dead my ass.

I decided to load my ipod exclusively with Detroit music for the trip. This was an inspired decision. Here's the list:

Black Merda - Black Merda
Death - ... For the Whole World To See
Finale - A Pipe Dream and a Promise
Marvin Gaye - What's Going On (obviously)
Morgan Geist - The Driving Memoirs
Invincible - Shapeshifters
J Dilla - Donuts
Yusef Lateef - Yusef Lateef's Detroit
Bettye Lavette - The Scene of the Crime
MC5 - Kick Out The Jams
Rodriguez - Cold Fact
The Stooges - Raw Power
Gino Washington - Out Of This World
Mixes by Kyle Hall, Robert Hood, Moodymann, Omar S, and Kevin Saunderson)

Given that we arrived Saturday afternoon and left the day after, I only had a few hours to explore the city. Just long enough to make me want to come back very, very soon.* We didn't even make it out of downtown, save for a short stroll west to Michigan and Trumbull to see what remains of Tiger Stadium (nothing), so we didn't see any urban prairie, burnt out city blocks, or any of that kind of urban blight. Downtown Detroit is bizarre. It is one of the most architecturally impressive downtowns that I've seen in North America. I'm a sucker for old school skyscrapers, and Detroit has them in abundance: Art Deco ones, neo-Gothic ones, you name it. It's pretty clear that Detroit once upon a time was a confident, important city. There are stately, imposing squares. There are statues of important people every couple of blocks. There are wide boulevards with what probably used to be luxury apartment buildings lining them. In many areas, the streetscapes are probably remarkably similar to what they would have been in the 1950s or even earlier; I guess one of the by products of being a financially strapped city is that you can't afford to tear down old buildings.

(*The agent inspecting my luggage at the border, after learning that this was my first visit to Detroit, said "yeah, it'll probably be your last." She is wrong.)

If the first thing that struck me about downtown Detroit was the architecture, the second thing I noticed was how deserted it was. I guess I should have expected this - trust me, I've done my required reading about Detroit, white flight, and suburbanization - but it was still jarring. Seriously, Mac and I would sometimes go five minutes without seeing anybody else. We jaywalked at every intersection because there were never any cars coming. These enormous squares, like the Campus Martius, were literally completely deserted. The same goes for the Riverfront. Most businesses don't even bother opening on the weekend.* It was eerie. There were more people around at night then during the day, which is both both reassuring and really, really creepy.**

(*Presumably these businesses open during Tigers and Lions games.)

(**At around 12:30 AM, we passed a club on Michigan Avenue that seemed to be where young, moneyed Detroiters go to show off their money. We passed millions of dollars worth of cars parked on the street. Most of the people in line were barely out of their twenties. Now, there are only a few ways that a 21 year old can make that kind of money. In a city like Detroit, there are even less ways. Draw your own conclusions.)

The third thing that jumped out was how preposterous the Detroit People Mover is. The People Mover is an automated train that takes people around downtown. It is also a colossal waste of money, which is made worse by the fact that Detroit doesn't have any to spend. Downtown was much, much, much more compact than I expected, it can't take more than 20 minutes to walk across it. There is no need to have a people mover in such a small area. None. Especially not when the the stations are 200 metres apart in some area, and especially not when the frigging thing ONLY GOES CLOCKWISE. So if you want to get from Joe Louis Arena to the Financial District, you have to go all around the downtown circle. Of course, nobody would ever take the people mover from the Joe to the Financial District - it's a 3 minute walk.

The only part of downtown that had any foot traffic at all was Greektown, which by all accounts is thriving. This is where we had our pre-fight dinner. Now, I usually steer clear of going out for Greek food. Greek resto food in North America, some notable exceptions in New York and Washington notwithstanding, is incredibly boring. Every restaurant has pretty much the exact same menu, and most of their quality is nothing to write home about (especially not when you grew up eating my Mom's Greek food). But Detroit is known as one of the better cities in North America for Greek... so why the hell not? And you know what? It was half decent. We ordered a bunch of things and shared them (which really is the only way Greek food should ever be eaten at a restaurant). I did the cliche thing and ordered saganaki, both because it's impossible to fuck up and because I wanted to see if the waiter would light himself on fire. No such luck. We also ordered marinated octopus salad and fried calamari. The octopus was perfectly acceptable; the thing with octopus is that it takes a long bloody time to prepare, and if the restaurant cuts corners you can taste it immediately. The Cyprus Taverna doesn't cut corners. The calamari was heavy on the batter and therefore not good. They clearly fried the entire batch in old oil; seriously good calamari always uses fresh oil for every batch, so that the batter cooks up to be light (there are some places I know that change the oil in the middle of a batch). The roast lamb that we ordered, however, was spectacular, fall-off-the-bone tender and not overcooked (a problem in Greek restos) and overall delicious. Score.

Also eaten in Detroit: a Coney Island hot dog! A Coney is basically chili dog, but deserves a different name in Detroit because Coney eating seems to be an important cultural activity. We went for a Coney at about 12:30 AM after the right, and the place was PACKED. I saw more people chowing down on Coneys and chili fries in that little diner than I saw on the street the entire afternoon. And rightfully so, Detroit Coneys are magnificent. It's all in the chili: it's beanless (beans would serve merely to weigh the dog down), a little spicy, and mixes really well with mustard. There is clearly another Coney in TG's future.

So the boxing. This was my chance to interact with Detroiters (as well as watch people pummel each other in the ring). Boxing in the US is now basically an ethnic sport, and Detroit is no different. The overwhelming majority of the fans at the Joe were African-American (there to cheer on Andre Dirrell, from just up the road in Flint), with a small but vocal group of Armenians there to cheer on Arthur Abraham. Because pretty much everything in Detroit has to be understood in the context of race, I should probably state that there were few non-Armenian Caucasians there. Everyone seemed to know each other; local boxers from the under card went up into the crowd to shake hands and mingle with friends/fans/whoever. Everyone was super nice (this goes for the city in general; lovely people).

The main event was insane. Dirrell had the fight of his life and looked like he was cruising to a win over Abraham. But in the 10th and 11th rounds, Abraham came storming back. At the end of the 11th, Dirrell slipped on the canvas while trying to dodge an Abraham punch and fell to his knees. Abraham promptly clocked him and put him down for the count. Nobody knew what had happened until they showed the replay of Abraham punching Dirrell when he was on his knees (very illegal, and very dirty). You evidently do not punch Andre Dirrell when he's on his knees in Detroit. Shit turned ugly really, really quickly. Random dudes jumped the boards onto the floor level and were heading toward the ring, clearly with the intention of starting a melee (the security was nonexistent). Once I saw these dudes jump the barrier and head for the ring, I was 99% sure there was going to be a riot. This may seem like a ridiculous thing to say, but you just had to be there. Violence was in the air. Thankfully, they announced at this point that Dirrell had won by disqualification. Any other result and some really, really, really bad shit would have went down.



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